In the first half of the 20th century, polio was one of the most feared diseases in America. Paralytic polio causes pain and weakness in the arms or legs and problems with swallowing and breathing. This occurs when the polio virus attacks and kills motor nerve cells, which control muscles.
Since 1955, when the polio vaccine was introduced, the disease has all but disappeared in the United States. But in the early 1990s, patients who previously had polio and recovered began to report progressive pain and weakness in muscles and joints as well as increasing problems with fatigue.
Mayo Clinic researchers have been following a group of adults in Minnesota who had polio between 1935 and 1955 to learn more about the lingering effects of the disease. Researchers suspect that aging plays a role. “If you’ve already lost nerve cells in your youth because of polio and the remaining cells have been working twice as hard, you’re going to have even more difficulties as you start to lose nerve cells to aging,” says Anthony Windebank, M.D., neurologist and director of the Regenerative Neurobiology Program at Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
In addition, people may limp or walk differently because of polio damage and, as a result, be more prone to wear and tear and arthritis in the knees. Finally, people who’ve learned to compensate for polio-related problems may find that the compensation causes considerable fatigue.
There’s no specific treatment for post-polio syndrome itself but most symptoms can be treated or managed. For patients who suspect polio is causing symptoms, the recommendation is to seek an evaluation with a provider who understands the illness and has experience treating neuromuscular disorders.
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